The world’s attention is focused once again on the negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, commonly referred to as P5+1. Many are speculating about whether these negotiations will bear fruit by November 24, 2014, and reach a long-term agreement on curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for removal of sanctions imposed on the country. Whatever the outcome, however, one thing is certain: the role of Israel in these negotiations has diminished considerably.
Last year’s short-term Joint Plan of Action (JPA), which was signed between Iran and the P5+1 on November 24, 2013, was a milestone in the US-Iran relations. As I analyzed it elsewhere, the JPA resulted in limiting some of Iran’s nuclear activities—which allegedly would enable her to make nuclear weapons—in return for a minimal reduction in certain kinds of sanctions. But this was not the real significance of the agreement. After all, and contrary to popular belief, the dispute between the US and Iran has never really been a technical dispute over nuclear issues. The dispute has always been a political clash; and the clash started in 1979, following the Iranian revolution. Since then the US has refused to accept the independence of Iran and has tried, using various excuses, to subdue a political system that would not fit the American vision of “world order.” These excuses, as I have shown elsewhere, have included, among others, issues such as Iran not accepting a ceasefire offered to it by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s support for “terrorist” groups opposed to Israel and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in general, Iran destabilizing Afghanistan, harboring Al-Qaeda, lacking democracy, being ruled by unelected individuals, violating human rights, not protecting the rights of women, and Iran not being forward-looking and modern. It has only been since 2002, when an Iranian exile group working hand in hand with the US and Israel made certain allegations against Iran, that the issue of Iran’s nuclear program was added to the list of accusations and became the cause célèbre and even casus belli. The JPA removed, at least for six months, the most major excuse for the US to wage a military attack on Iran.
In its clash with Iran, the US has always had a very close partner, Israel. The partnership started in 1979, but it took different routes. Up until the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the first US invasion of Iraq, Israel’s attention was primarily focused on Iraq, which was viewed by Israel as the most immediate obstacle to achieving its goal of annexing “Judea and Samaria.” Thereafter, Israel turned its attention to Iran, the other main obstacle in fulfilling the Zionist dream of Eretz Yisrael. Starting in the early 1990s Israel not only joined the US in its massive campaign against Iran, but it actually took over the sanctions policy of the US. With the help of its lobby groups, Israel pushed through the US Congress one set of sanctions after another, hoping that ultimately the US would attack Iran, as it had done in the case of Iraq.
Israel and its lobby groups also installed influential individuals in different US administrations to formulate US foreign policy toward Iran. This included the first Obama Administration. Various Israeli lobbyists shaped President Obama’s policy of “tough diplomacy,” a policy which, as I have analyzed elsewhere, meant nothing but sanctions upon sanctions until conditions would be ripe for military actions against Iran. Among these were Dennis Ross and Gary Samore. The first, Ross, well-known as “Israel’s lawyer,” was Obama’s closest advisor on Iran. He came from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an offshoot of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and when he retired in 2011 he returned to his lobbying activities through WINEP and JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs). The second, Samore, who served as Obama’s advisor on “weapons of mass destruction,” was one of the founding members of the Israeli lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), an establishment that has been lately in the news for receiving classified US government information on Iran and is being protected by the Obama Administration in a law suit. Samore left the Obama Administration in 2013 and returned to UANI to become its president. He also became the executive director of the Harvard University’s Belfer Center that is also linked to UANI, according to some investigative reports.
The policy of “tough diplomacy” pursued by the Israeli lobbyists did not produce the desired result. The harsh sanctions imposed did enormous damage to Iran’s economy. But, as Samore himself admitted in a talk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London on March 11, 2014, there were no “riots on the streets” and no “threat to the survival of the regime.”
With the departure of the most influential Israeli lobbyists from the Obama Administration, the policy of “tough diplomacy” started to wither away. The disintegration of policy was also helped by John Kerry replacing Hillary Clinton, the most hawkish Secretary of State who often mimicked the belligerent language of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it came to Iran. Kerry—who, as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had once stated in an interview with The Financial Times that Iran has “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose”—abandoned the policy of “tough diplomacy.” In the P5+1 meetings in February of 2013, Kerry offered the Iranian government a deal that it could live with. However, the Iranian government under President Ahmadinejad hesitated, haggled over the deal, and ran out of time as the Iranian presidential election approached. The new Iranian President, Rouhani, accepted the deal and ran away with it. The result was the JPA.
Israel, which had hoped that a military attack on Iran by the US would follow the tough sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration, was quite unhappy with the JPA. Even before an agreement was reached, Israeli leaders and their US allies led a massive campaign against it. For example, according to The Times of Israel, on November 10, 2013, Netanyahu sent an indirect message to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, telling him that if France did not toughen its positions, he would attack Iran. Netanyahu also asked his supporters around the world to stop the deal. A news headline in Haaretz on November 10, 2013, read: “Netanyahu urges Jews: Rally behind me on halting Iran nuclear program.” Surrogates of Israel in the US Congress followed suit. The title of a news item on Reuters on November 10, 2013, read: “U.S. lawmakers seek tighter Iran sanctions before any deal.” Among the lawmakers were Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, as well as Representatives Eric Cantor, Ed Royce and Eliot Engel. Israeli lobbyists, too, went into action. This included former advisor to Obama Dennis Ross. “We must not let Tehran off the hook, says Dennis Ross at Jewish Agency for Israel’s 2013 Assembly,” was The Jerusalem Post headline on November 10, 2013. Yet, in the end, the short-term agreement between Iran and the P5+1 could not be stopped.
Failing to stop the JPA, Israel then tried to nullify it by passing a new and severe set of sanctions through the US Congress. The move was led by Kirk and Menendez, two senators who often appear on the list of the biggest recipients of campaign cash from pro-Israel public actions committees. The Kirk-Menendez bill, titled “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act,” was introduced on December 19, 2013, with the sole purpose of ending the agreement between Iran and the P5+1. The bill gained momentum as various Israeli lobby groups, particularly AIPAC, exerted pressure in the Senate. On January 4, 2014, AIPAC had a summary of Kirk-Menendez bill on its website and was instructing its members to “act now.”
The number of senators signing the Kirk-Menendez bill rose from 33 in early January to 59 in mid-January, 2014. This was despite the fact that some officials in the Obama Administration, including Secretary Kerry, referred to the bill as an attempt to push the US into a war with Iran. This was also in spite of Obama’s threats to veto the bill. On January 28, 2014, in his State of the Union Address, Obama reiterated his stance on any congressional bill intended to impose a new set of sanctions on Iran and stated that “if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. ”
Israel, its lobby groups and its conduits in Congress, nevertheless, pushed for passing the resolution. However, they could not muster the strength to get the two-thirds majority in the Senate to make the bill veto-proof. They threw in the towel and AIPAC declared on February 6, 2014: “We agree with the Chairman [Menendez] that stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support . . . and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.” As many observed, this was the biggest loss for Israel, its lobby groups and its conduits in the US Congress, since Ronald Reagan agreed, contrary to Israel’s demand, to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Subsequent attempts to nullify the JPA also failed. This included an attempt by some Senators, a few days before March 2014 AIPAC policy conference, to include elements of “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act” in a veterans’ bill.
In the end, Israeli lobby groups had to settle for a few letters written by US law makers to President Obama, telling him what the final deal must look like. The AIPAC-approved letter in the House of Representative on March 3, 2014, was circulated by Eric Cantor and Steny Hoyer. The Senate letter was posted on AIPAC website, dated March 18, 2014, and, as many Israeli affiliated news sources joyously reported, the letter gained 82 signatures. Finally, 23 Senators also signed the Cantor-Hoyer letter, as Senator Carl Levin’s website posted it on March 22, 2014. If some of the harsh measures proposed in these letters were to be adopted by the Obama Administrations, no final deal could be reached with Iran.
The JPA was supposed to lead to a final settlement in six months, and, consequently, there were many rounds of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 before the deadline. The final and the most intense negotiations that took place behind closed doors in July 2014 lasted for more than two weeks. However, in the end there were “significant gaps on some core issues,” as a statement by EU Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif read on July 19, 2014. It was therefore decided to close the so-called gaps by November 24, 2014.
We are now approaching the 2nd deadline for reaching a long-term agreement between Iran and the P5+1. It is unclear whether the gaps can be bridged. It is also unclear how much of these gaps are due to the relentless Israeli pressure that is still being exerted even on the Obama Administration and its team of negotiators. We know that these negotiators, as they have readily admitted, consult Israel before and after every meeting with Iran. Indeed, even after the latest round of meetings between Iran and the US in Muscat, Oman, Kerry called Netanyahu to “update” him on the negotiations. Yet, we also know that Israel does not have the clout that it once had in the White House. The most influential Israeli lobbyists have left the Obama Administration and their policy of tough diplomacy is in tatters. Israel has also been unable to stop the short-term P5+1 agreement with Iran, it has failed to nullify the agreement after it passed, and it has not even been able to garner the two-thirds majority in the Senate to make veto-proof a Congressional bill designed to start a war with Iran. In other words, in the past two years Israel has been losing the battle to engage the US in another military adventure in the Middle East. But has Israel lost the war to wage war on Iran? The newly configured US Senate is already seeking a vote on another Israeli sponsored war bill called “Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act of 2014.”
Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: email@example.com.